While research is still in the early stages, scientists from The University of Texas at El Paso envision that caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots - which can be easily obtained from coffee grounds - could be 'transformative' in treating increasingly common neurodegenerative disorders.
They hope the substance could ultimately be used to create medication that could prevent the vast majority of neurodegenerative disorders that are caused by factors other than genetics.
Caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots
A team led by Jyotish Kumar, a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and overseen by Mahesh Narayan, Ph.D., a professor and Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in the same department, found that caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots (CACQDs) derived from spent coffee grounds can provide protection from neurodegenerative diseases if the condition is triggered by certain factors (such as obesity, age and exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals).
The discovery is particularly exciting because current treatments are often focused on managing symptoms rather than addressing the disease itself.
“Caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots have the potential to be transformative in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders,” said Kumar.
“This is because none of the current treatments resolve the diseases; they only help manage the symptoms.
"Our aim is to find a cure by addressing the atomic and molecular underpinnings that drive these conditions.”
Neurodegenerative diseases involve the loss of neurons or brain cells. They inhibit the ability to perform basic functions such as movement and speech, as well as more complicated tasks including bladder and bowel functions, and cognitive abilities.
In their early stages, these disorders - when caused by lifestyle or environmental factors - share several traits. These include elevated levels of free radicals — harmful molecules that are known to contribute to other diseases such as cancer, heart disease and vision loss — in the brain, and the aggregation of fragments of amyloid-forming proteins that can lead to plaques or fibrils in the brain.
Kumar and his colleagues found that CACQDs were neuroprotective in models of Parkinson’s disease when the disorder was caused by the pesticide paraquat.
The CACQDs were able to remove free radicals (or at least prevent them from causing damage) and inhibited the aggregation of amyloid protein fragments without causing any significant side effects.
The team believes that in humans, in the very early stage of a condition such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, a treatment based on CACQDs could prevent the development of full-on disease.
“It is critical to address these disorders before they reach the clinical stage,” Narayan said. “At that point, it is likely too late. Any current treatments that can address advanced symptoms of neurodegenerative disease are simply beyond the means of most people.
"Our aim is to come up with a solution that can prevent most cases of these conditions at a cost that is manageable for as many patients as possible.”
Advances in drug development
With aging populations, the focus on addressing neurodegenerative diseases has increased. In the pharmaceutical world, the race is on to create effective drugs: with several recent milestones with high-profile biologic drugs such as the 2021 approval of Aduhelm (aducanumab) for Alzheimer's in the US.
And yet these come with their challenges: such as the high costs of development and complicated or limited health coverage mechanisms.
Previous research has found correlations between coffee consumption and neuroprotective outcomes: with cognitive impairment, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases representing the most explored areas. Scientists already have suggested that the risk of developing such diseases seems to decrease with moderate to high coffee intake.
Caffeic acid comes from the plant-based compounds polyphenols: already known for their antioxidant properties.
It is unique because it can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and is thus able to exert its effects upon the cells inside the brain.
Furthermore, the process the team at The University of Texas at El Paso has undertaken to extract CACQDs from used coffee grounds is dubbed as “green chemistry" - ie, environmentally friendly.
Millions of cups of coffee are consumed in the US every day. And yet only a fraction of the coffee bean actually goes into a cup of coffee: with the vast majority ending up as waste in the form of coffee grounds.
The sheer abundance of this waste product - along with the 'green chemistry' process - is what makes the process both economical and sustainable, Narayan said.
The research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. The team is now seeking additional funding for further testing.